Lionel Gossman’s Orpheus Philologus: Bachofen versus Mommsen on the Study of Antiquity: American Philosophical Society Transactions (73-5) (ISBN: 142237467X)
Orpheus Philologus: Bachofen versus Mommsen on the Study of Antiquity
(American Philosophical Society Transaction 73-5, ISBN: 142237467X)
by Lionel Gossman (Paperback, 89 pages, 1983, $25.00)
Though the great German classical scholar Theodor Mommsen was probably unaware of it, he was the object of the passionate and enduring hatred of J. J. Bachofen, an obscure Swiss philologist in the provincial city of Basle.
Bachofen, not well known in the English-speaking world, is mentioned by anthropologists for his contribution to the popular 19th-century theory of “matriarchy,” and by classicists such as George Derwent Thomson for his contributions to the study of Greek myth and tragedy.
“I chanced on Bachofen, while working on the French historian, Jules Michelet,” author Lionel Gossman tells the American Philosophical Society. “Gender carries great metaphoric weight in Michelet’s historical writings and popular works of natural history. Bachofen highlights its role in ancient classical myth.
“For both, the feminine signifies the body, the primitive, the unbounded, the people; it is the productive source of life, but also marks the eternal, mindless cycle of life and death. The masculine, in contrast, represents spirit, reason, law, and progress; but without the feminine, it is sterile.
“Strikingly, Bachofen’s masterwork Das Mutterrecht (Mother-Right) appeared in the same year (1861) as Michelet’s best-selling La Mer, which is as much about the mother, the feminine, as it is about the sea.
“In Bachofen, I discovered a politically conservative scholar of great imagination and literary talent, whose Romantic vision of historical research, in an increasingly positivist age, as a descent into a forgotten or repressed underworld, was surprisingly similar to that of his left-leaning French contemporary.”
Arnaldo Momigliano writes in The Journal of Modern History: “Gossman’s monograph, penetrating and well informed […] will help enormously to place Bachofen in his time and to indicate his interest for our time. Gossman sees him as the lonely heir of a previous generation and tradition […] whose philological interpretation of individual texts had been characterized by a deep suspicion of the modernization of ancient views and by a predisposition to an intuitive global understanding of the wisdom of classical and preclassical stories.”
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